It Matters to Me

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

From as far back as I can remember, the Christmas season has always been my favourite.  And it’s true even more now, in my mid-seventies, than it was as a child.

When I stop to think about the reasons for that, I suppose it has to do with the different meanings that Christmas has for me.  Although I can think of many, there are three significant beliefs that stick out.

…with the kids jingle-belling, and everyone telling you, “Be of good cheer…”

None of the three has anything to do with the endless sparring between the commercial and religious aspects of the season—where we find Santa Claus in every shopping mall, serenaded by traditional carols blasted over a tinny sound system.  Or coming to town on a huge sleigh pulled by plastic reindeer.  Were I to dwell on that, the whole season would be spoiled.

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Neither are my feelings affected by the view of Christmas as a pagan festival, the embodiment of which is old St. Nick, rather than as a true celebration of the birth of Christ.  For me, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

It’s the hap-happiest season of all…

As a matter of fact, Santa Claus is one of the things I like best about Christmas.  For the record, I still believe in him.  Every Christmas—under the somewhat curious stare of my grandchildren, who are all sophisticated now to the point of pretending to pretend—I hang up my stocking, just as I have for more than seventy years.

“Gramps, you don’t still believe in Santa, do you?” my youngest granddaughter asks.  She watches me closely as I frame a reply.

“Sure do,” I say.  “I mean, I don’t know if there really is a Santa Claus, but it’s more fun to act as if there is.  Believing in Santa is one of the things that make Christmas so much fun.”

stocking

I don’t know if she agrees with me, but it’s reassuring to note that she still hangs up her own stocking.

The second thing of significance for me about the Christmas season is the good feeling prompted by memories of Christmases past.  It’s always been a time for family members to come together.

With those holiday greetings and gay, happy meetings when friends come to call…

For years, my parents’ house was the destination on Christmas Day, eventually giving way to my home, where my wife and I raised our two daughters.  Grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and friends would all drop in, often staying for the opening of the gifts, and dinner afterwards.  And, without fail, they would reminisce about their own childhood Christmas seasons, sharing their happy, nostalgic memories with us.

…tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…

It’s different today, of course, because our daughters have children of their own.  Theirs are the homes we gather at now, with in-laws and friends of their generation.  And, to my everlasting surprise, we have become the old folks—observers rather than directors of the goings-on around the tree.

Worst of all—as the oldest one gathered there, I have to wait ‘til the very end to open my stocking.

…parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow…

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But, regardless of where we are, the things that haven’t changed are the feelings of love and joy we all share at this time of year.

The third thing of importance to me is the fact that Christmas does mark the birth of Christ.  I believe the question of historical accuracy is irrelevant.  The very fact of his birth, whatever the actual date, is a symbol of our hope for peace on earth.  It stands as a beacon of the promise for salvation in a world fraught with danger and despair for many.

I have absolutely no difficulty in integrating these three different notions of Christmas.  For me, they come together nicely—the fun and excitement of Santa Claus, the love and laughter of times with family, and our renewing joy at the birth of Christ.

There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones appear…

Perhaps the thread that ties the three together is the idea of faith, the idea of choosing to believe.  Christmas is my favourite time of the year, but for reasons that are neither irrefutable nor provable.  Faith doesn’t abide proof.

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My beliefs are valid only because I deem them so.  I want to believe in them, so I do.  And, therefore, Christmas represents a magical time for me—especially now, knowing I have more of them behind me than ahead.

Softly-falling snow, gaily-twinkling lights, the wonderful music, the excited laughter of grandchildren, and a peace that surpasses all understanding—all join to herald the coming of another Christmastime, a time to celebrate, to remember, to rejoice and give thanks.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

And it matters to me!

 

Eradicating Polio

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast…

So wrote William Congreve in his poem, The Mourning Bride, in 1697.

More than three centuries later, in my own lifetime, there has been practically nothing so savage in choking the life from the breasts of innocent children than the scourge of polio.  During the mid-part of the twentieth century, polio paralyzed or killed over half a million people a year worldwide.

Everyone who grew up in the years of my childhood came to dread the very word.  Who among us does not remember the iron lung—a lifesaving device for so many of the afflicted, but a terrifying monster in our minds—lurking in wait, a spectre that haunted our dreams.

polio-national museum of health and med

Those of us who managed to remain healthy all knew of someone who was not so fortunate.  Richard Rhodes, an American historian and journalist, wrote of polio in his autobiography, A Hole in the World:

Polio was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. One case turned up and then another. The count began to climb. The city closed the swimming pools and we all stayed home, cooped indoors, shunning other children. Summer seemed like winter then.

Today—thanks largely to the development of effective vaccines, and mass immunization programmes—the disease has been almost eradicated.

Almost.

In 1988, there were an estimated 350,000 reported cases of polio worldwide; by 2016, that number was 37, a remarkable decrease of 99%.  And yet, it lives.

The global effort to combat the disease has been tremendously effective, but as long as even one child remains infected, children everywhere are at risk.  A failure to completely eradicate the disease could spark a resurgence all over the world.

And so, to the power of music to combat all that is savage.  A men’s chorus of which I am a proud member, Harbourtown Sound, recently partnered with Rotary International in support of their Polio Plus campaign, hailed as “one of the finest humanitarian projects the world has ever known”.  Rotary fundraising has enabled the inoculation of more than 2.5 billion children, at a cost of $1.3 billion.

Twenty-one local Rotary Clubs recently joined with our chorus in a special Christmas concert to add to this global initiative.  Thanks to those committed Rotarians, to philanthropic sponsors working with them, and to the organizational efforts of one of our singers, a Rotarian, more than $130,000 was raised in one afternoon.

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For us on stage, it was a labour of love, singing glorious songs of the season—melodies as familiar to us today as the fear of the polio scourge was in days gone by.  For those in the audience, it was more than just a concert; it was an opportunity through their generosity to assist in the eradication of polio forever.

The Rotary International outreach is described at this website—

https://my.rotary.org/en/take-action/end-polio

More information about Harbourtown Sound can be found at our website—

http://www.harbourtownsound.ca/,

or on our Facebook homepage—

https://www.facebook.com/harbourtownsound/?fref=nf

HTS award

For Always

A number of years ago, my grandchildren were visiting their Nana and me when November 11th rolled around.

“What’s ‘Membrance Day, Gramps?” the oldest asked.

Re-membrance Day,” I replied.  “It’s the day when we remember the soldiers who fought in the wars.”

“What are wars, Gramps?” the youngest asked.

I found it astounding, and heartbreaking, that they were still so innocent.  And I wished they could be so for always.

It was difficult to explain the premise of warfare to them—the sheer gall and hubris and stupidity of humankind in seeking to settle what are sometimes legitimate grievances by killing each other in remote fields of mud and gore.

I couldn’t convey the sense of awe that washed over me, when I had stood years before in one of the cemeteries where poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row—scarcely able to believe the enormity of the carnage.  Nor could I explain to them how I was brought to tears by the simple inscription on too many of those markers—

Here Rests in Honored Glory, A Comrade in Arms, Known But To God

unknown soldier

Despite the fact that they couldn’t really understand, I told them we try now to remember the men and women who gave up their lives in defense of our country and its values, in all the wars in which our soldiers took part.

“Why do we hafta remember them?”

“Well, I guess it’s because we hope we won’t ever have to fight a war again,” I said.

Even as I talked about it, the thought occurred to me that the war with the most significance for me is one I don’t really remember at all.

My parents did, though.  For them, it was the war, one of the most significant events in their lives, an event that shaped many of their attitudes and beliefs forever.

My recollection of that war has come through them, formed as impressions and feelings, prompted by bits of memorabilia, by oft-repeated stories, or by the singing of wartime songs.

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I have a picture in an old family album, a now-faded snapshot with large white borders and scalloped edges.  It was taken at Christmas time in my grandparents’ living room during the winter of ’44.  I’m in the picture, right in front on my mother’s lap, not yet two years old.  The whole family is gathered around us beside the Christmas tree.

My mother’s parents are there, and her three sisters.  Her sister-in-law and two of her cousins complete the group.  With the exception of my grandfather (and me, I suppose), there are no male persons in the picture…no sons, no brothers, no husbands.

Whenever I look at it, I try to imagine what that Christmas must have been like for my family, most of them younger than my own children now.  I think about a song that became popular around that time, a young soldier’s promise that, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

I'll_Be_Home_for_Christmas_Bing_Crosby

 

So, when my young grandchildren asked about Remembrance Day, I tried to convey those same feelings to them.  Not what war was really like, because I don’t know.  Rather, how I still feel when I hear that song at Christmas time, or when I look again at that old snapshot.

I told them about my aunt who married her beau mere days before he shipped out, and that they didn’t see each other again for more than three years.  How he met her brother—his new brother-in-law—for the first time while they were both stationed in England.

brothers

Not one of my family’s young soldiers was home for Christmas that year.  One of them, an uncle I might have grown to love, never did come home.

I remember hearing my parents talk of them long afterwards.  I’d hear words and phrases that prompted my recollections—words like wartime and overseas, or phrases such as V-E Day and killed in action.

“If Jimmy had come home from overseas,” they’d say, “he’d be almost eighty now.  Can you imagine!”

Together, they’d sit quietly, thinking back, I guess—remembering how it was.

I knew my grandchildren would not be able to comprehend a war that ended more than half a century before they were born, or even understand what their great-grandparents went through.  But, in hearing about it from me, I hoped they would develop some sense of the meaning of freedom and democracy, and of the sacrifices that were needed and made.

poppy

And I hoped that, once they knew, perhaps they’d understand why we remember.

For always.

 

She Married Her Father-in-Law!

Around the community where we live, I am known to most of our neighbours as Donna’s husband.  This, I think, is due more to my wife’s friendly, caring nature with everyone she meets, than it is to my somewhat more reserved approach.

I don’t mind, of course, because it garners me automatic entry into the circle of regard in which she is held.  I benefit from instant credibility, instant relevance, instant acceptance.

“Oh, you’re Donna’s husband!” is an exclamation I often hear, followed quickly by a wide smile from the speaker, sometimes even a hug.

hugging

Among my own family, however, my identity has morphed into something I never quite anticipated.  Increasingly now, whenever I encounter sisters, nieces and nephews, or other extended family members, I am told I look like my father.

“You’re just like him,” they declare.  “You even sound like him.”

They’ve heard me sneeze, you see, which reincarnates my father every time.

Although I loved him very much while he was with us, I confess I never aspired to be exactly like him.  I wanted to be my own man—not so unusual a desire, I suppose, for sons of successful, admired fathers.

As a young man encountering people who knew him, I would often hear, “Ahh, you’re Bill Burt’s boy.”

And I would struggle to suppress the haughty reply, “Actually, he’s my father.”

But now, happily entrenched in my mid-seventies, I am no longer possessed by that same hubris.  Just as I am inordinately proud to be both a father and grandfather in my own right, I am more than happy to be recognized as my father’s son.

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My beautiful picture

 

 

 

 

Still, it comes as something of a shock to be reminded by those who knew him that, more and more, I behave just like he used to.  In photographs, I gaze at the camera with the same bemused expression he always had.  I remember thinking he was trying for a mix of casual and noble at the same time; I don’t know what I’m attempting to do, but I somehow attain the same inane facial expression.

My mouth, at rest, turns downward at the corners, making me appear grouchy, when I am anything but.  I try to smile broadly for the camera, as he did, if for no other reason than to dispel that impression.

In many pictures, I’m sitting the way he did, or standing with the same posture.  As my jowls begin to droop, as my hair turns white, my profile shots are becoming eerily similar to his.

In videos, I walk the way he used to, shoulders hitched slightly high, strong chin tucked in, eyes peering out from under raised eyebrows.

And (somewhat depressingly, I must admit), I feel awkward now as I clamber from my easy chair to my feet, as I try to step into my trousers without falling over, as I walk slowly upstairs one-step-at-a-time—just as I remember my father doing at my age!

upstairs

I must confess, however, that I do like it when the comparison is reversed; for example, when my grandchildren see a picture of my father (whom none of them remember), and say, “Wow, Grandpa, he sure looks like you!”  That turns the corners of my mouth up every time.

And I appreciate the truth now in the lines from William Wordsworth—

…So was it when my life began,

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old…

The Child is father of the Man.

No one in our community ever knew my father; but if they were ever to see a picture of him, I’m sure I’d no longer be known as Donna’s husband.

Instead, the whispers would be, “Can you believe it?  She married her father-in-law!”

Winding the Watch

While sitting in church a few months ago, attending the funeral service for a former colleague, I beheld a curious sight.

During the eulogy, delivered by the minister in his solemn, stentorian tone, a man sitting one pew ahead of me began to polish his glasses.  Slowly, assiduously, he wiped the front and back of each lens.  In between wipes, he held them up to the stained-glass window off to one side, as if expecting a divine ray of light to beam down upon him through the glass.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Such a commonplace exercise; and yet, I thought, so seemingly out of place in that crowded church.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was paying attention to the words being spoken.  Or was he as distracted by his little task as I was?

When he had finished the job to his own satisfaction, he replaced his glasses, smoothed the hair over his ears, and settled back to listen to the rest of the funereal tribute.  I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

But the episode took me back a long, long way—back to when I was a small boy, attending church with my grandparents.  We used to go regularly—to a huge, cathedral-like edifice with o’er-vaulting arches, windows that turned the sun’s beams to every colour in the spectrum as they streamed through the glass, massive stone walls, and aged oaken altar.  Every time I entered, experiencing as if for the first time the great hush that filled the soaring space, I felt small and awed by its majesty.

Everyone spoke to my grandfather, a rector’s warden for many years, and to my grandmother, a pillar of the ladies’ auxiliary.  They spoke to me, too, usually while ruffling the auburn curls I wore back then.  I smiled forbearingly through it all.

I used to enjoy being there, though, because I loved the tremendous, swelling music of the massive pipe organ, and the grand singing of the choir.  To this day, the sound of the old hymns sends a shiver through me—A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; Abide With Me; O God, Our Help In Ages Past; Blessed Assurance; and so many more.

old_organ_in_the_church_200879

But I always dreaded the point during the service when the minister would climb high into the pulpit to deliver his sermon.  Not that his messages were inappropriate; I was probably too young to understand them, anyway.

No, I dreaded it because my grandfather would always take that time—when there was no sound in all that hushed hall, save the minister’s voice—to wind his watch.  To my cocked ears, sitting right alongside him, that winding was louder than the most thundering organ oratorio.

Once a week, without fail, he would wind his watch.  And I, in my childish way, was mortified that he should choose to do it there.  And amazed that I seemed to be the only one who noticed.

Today, as a grandfather myself, I see it a little differently—as an analogy of sorts.  I’ve come to believe that, just as he wound the watch to keep good time through the following week, so, too, was he rewinding his spirit, sitting there in church, to see him safely through the week to come.

I have that watch now, still on one end of the gold chain he wore across the front of his waistcoat, with a weighted fob at the other end.  It sits in a drawer in my bedroom, and I take it out from time to time.  Even after all these years, it keeps good time—when I wind it.

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Seeing that man in church the other day, wiping his glasses so diligently, I remembered my grandfather.  I could almost hear the sound that used to embarrass me so—and I’m embarrassed now that I was embarrassed then.

I still miss him.  I wish he could be sitting there beside me once again, smelling comfortingly of bay-rum after-shave and pipe tobacco.

And winding his watch.

The Forest

A close friend posted a picture online recently, accompanied by a passage from John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and author.  It read …and into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

On this past weekend, our Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, two of my sisters went camping with their families, braving the October temperatures in the boreal forest of Algonquin Park.  They also posted online, pictures and messages, waxing eloquently on the beauty and serenity of the wilderness world around them.

I have long believed there is no more beautiful place to be in the world than Ontario in the splendor of October—when the green forest recasts itself in glorious hues of scarlet red, bright yellow, incandescent orange, and intense burgundy.  The sun, lower in the sky, shines through them, and they glow as if afire.

fall

We lived on a lake in the north for a long time—a long time ago.  One of our favourite October pastimes was walking the solitary cottage roads after all the seasonal vacationers had headed home.  Smelling the wood smoke from chimneys of the few year-round homes, kicking the wind-strewn piles of fallen leaves, breathing in the nippy harbingers of winter borne on the autumn breezes.

Occasionally, late in the month, we’d even get the first falls of snow, blown hither and yon before melting away in the late October sunshine.

The forest was a refuge, a release, a reminder that life, once upon a time, was simpler and elemental.

Sixty years ago, I spent a summer planting trees on the slopes of a valley, formerly the rocky, infertile fields of a pioneer farming family.  A lovely, clean river meandered its way along the valley floor.  We worked in pairs, one with the spade, the other with the bag of saplings, and we traded places every half-hour, or so.  I remember it as hard work, dirty work, thirsty work, to be sure.  But I know now it was glorious work, where we were (to steal from the 1965 novel by Peter Matthiessen), at play in the fields of the Lord.

tree

One of us would cut a T-shaped slice in the ground with the spade, then pry it up, splitting apart the base of the T.  The other would gently place a sapling, each about six inches high, in the crevice, and press the ground back together around the fragile stem.  When we finished a row, we’d retrace our path, pouring water from a bucket on each new plant.

I’ve lost track of how many trees we planted in a morning, or a day, or over the entire summer.  But it had to be a lot.  Hundreds.  We’d never heard the phrase paying it forward…it hadn’t even been coined back then, I imagine.  But that’s what we—such callow, carefree boys—were doing.

I had occasion some time back to drive through that same valley, not too far north of Toronto, and I stopped to look at the fields where we had laboured—private property now, far across the river on the opposite slopes.  To my chagrin, I couldn’t see them at first.  And then the astounding reality struck home.  The fields were still there, but the green canopy of a forest covered them—a forest—shielding them from my view.

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Our forest!  Our trees!

I couldn’t walk through that forest, of course—touching the trees, remembering them in their infancy, as they passed from my hands to the soil that embraced them.  Nor, truth be told, did I really need to.  It was enough to recall those barren fields as they were, and compare them to what they became after we were there.

As I think back on that long-ago summer, I know I left things behind—sweat, friends, youth.  Lost now in the mists of time.

But, as Muir so eloquently wrote, I found my soul.

The Old Barbershop

Perhaps the only regret I ever harboured about having two daughters and no sons was that I couldn’t take them with me to the old barbershop.  I was informed early on that girls go to salons!

I always thought that was too bad.  Because, in spite of the razzing that most of us took from teasing friends after getting a haircut, it was always one of life’s most pleasurable experiences—well worth the minor annoyance of listening to wise-guys who persisted in asking why we got our ears lowered.

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The pleasure I experienced stemmed from a number of factors.  For example, it was comforting to enter the crowded shop, find an empty chair, and pick up a copy of the daily paper.  It was a respite from the work-a-day grind.

Today, of course, I pull out my cellphone while I’m waiting.

Back then, a drowsy feeling would creep over me whenever I was sitting, waiting my turn.  The low murmur of voices, punctuated now and then by hearty laughter; the snickety-tickety of the scissors; the low humming of the electric trimmer—all came together to create a warm, relaxing rhythm.  I often had to be called back from some far-away place when my turn came, though I’d never left my seat.

And no one ever argued about whose turn it was.

Being in the old barbershop was a familiar experience, too—particularly if one had been going to the same barber for twenty-five years, as I did.  But for the prices, not much changed over all that time.  Except, of course, we the people, who had a front-row seat to (as Yeats put it) the sorrows of our changing faces.

Traditional Barber's Shop

In those long-ago days, the same red, white, and blue-striped pole was always spinning in the window.  And no matter how many times I studied it, the stripes always seemed to disappear into the bottom in mysterious fashion, only to reappear at the top and begin their descent all over again.  Or was it the other way around?

I never figured it out, and can still convince myself, if I try, that it was magic.

Throughout those years, the same mirrors ran along both walls of the narrow shop, with the same few cracks and discoloured marks, right where they’d always been.  I still remember my amazement when, as a young boy, I discovered I could see the back of my own head while sitting in the barber’s high chair.

Even today, in a different shop with different barbers—a man and two women, much younger than I—I’m intrigued by the number of reflections-within-reflections that can be seen in the parallel mirrors, reflections that run in a seemingly endless chain to goodness-knows-where.  The end?  The beginning?

Anyway, it was always a comfortable and cozy delight to go for a haircut, and reassuring, too.  In this world of ours, where change seems to be the only constant, it was a joy to go in and find everything just as it was when I left the last time.  All the tools laid out on the shelf in the familiar, haphazard arrangement; the bottles of variously-coloured liquids standing, twinned against the mirror; small piles of multi-hued hair swept into corners, away from the chairs; and talcum powder covering everything in sight with its fine, white mantle.

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It was reassuring to know that Nick—my barber with his unpronounceable Greek surname—was ever willing to discuss the fortunes of the various sports teams we rooted for, and that he had all the answers to the problems that plagued them.  We probably had the same conversations a hundred times or more, but they always seemed fresh and enjoyable.

If you can understand and appreciate how I felt about that old barbershop, and if you can imagine the bonds that grew up over twenty-five years, then you might have some inkling of the trauma I experienced when I moved away.  It seemed impossible for the longest time to find that same comfort level in any of the many shops I tried.

But then, finally, it happened.  Just a few short blocks from where I live now, I stumbled across Joe’s Barber Shop.  There’s no Joe, anymore—he’s been retired as long as I have—but the folks who greet me each time I enter have become almost as familiar as the long-since-departed Nick.

My new shop is closing, however.  But not permanently, thank goodness; only for a few days, to move to a new location, one closer to where I live now.  By the time I need my next haircut, they’ll be comfortably ensconced in their new shop, still known as Joe’s.  And a spiraling barber pole will be there, too, to bedevil me as it always did.

pole

One major difference will await me, though.  They’ll be sharing digs with a ladies’ salon, and the waiting area will be used by patrons of both.  Because of that, I expect the tone and tenor of conversations in the shop will be different than those I remember from my youthful days.

But there will be one wonderful change that I shall applaud heartily.  Young fathers with daughters will be able to bring their girls with them when they come for a haircut.  I envy them that pleasure.

Toddler child getting his first haircut

Because the only regret I ever harboured about the old barbershop was that I couldn’t take my daughters with me.